with Skavoovie & the Epitones, Amazing Royal Crowns, Bim Skala Bim, The Toasters, The Pilfers, The Skatalites at the New England Ska Festival
by Margo Tiffen
On August 23rd, the first New England Ska Festival was held at the Nashoba Valley Ski Area in Westford, MA. It was an all-ska festival featuring a finely-tuned lineup of fifteen ska bands in the rolling hills of suburban Massachusetts on a sunny Saturday… It was every ska fan’s wet dream.
The show started at 12 o’clock and I arrived late, so I missed Big Lick, Big D. & the Kids Table, and the Independents. There were two stages, a fair-sized main stage, and a smaller one off to the side in which some of the lesser-known bands tore up the down time. Connecticut’s Spring Heeled Jack took the stage at 1:45. They tore through old classics “Freedom,” “Let’s Get Together,” and “East End Gangster,” the crowd shouting all the words and bouncing along with the band. The Colonel from The Amazing Royal Crowns joined SHJ onstage while Ron and Mike, the two lead singers, traded off vocals and raced around, dancing with all the kids and keeping the crowd going strong. SHJ’s horns are incredible, added with a tight-n-heavy rhythm section and guitar, you get the ska/punk/funk idiot savants that we’ve come to know and love as Spring Heeled Jack.
Boston’s hometown boys, Skavoovie & the Epitones were up next, and they were, as always, a formidable sight. They started the set with “Blood Red Sky” off their new album Ripe. Known for their kick-ass instrumentals, they kept them to a minimum for the festival, as it was obvious the crowd enjoyed the participation of shouting along with the band as they skanked it up in the heat. With most of their local following present, the crowd all headed for drinks and a quick rest after the set. The brave of heart and body headed over to the side stage for Johnny Too Bad, another great band from Connecticut.
Now, as a disclaimer, the Amazing Royal Crowns are not a ska band and I know it’s an all-ska festival, but it really wouldn’t have been complete without them. The Crowns were fresh from tour, they flew back just to play the show, and had to borrow instruments (including this beautiful upright bass with giant red/yellow flames). Their set was one of the highlights of the festival. The Agents’ horn section came out to play with the boys for a song, as did Spring Heeled Jack’s on a high-energy, awesome version of “Do The Devil.” King is the most charismatic lead vocalist you could ever ask for, and the Colonel plays guitar like a hell-bent rockabilly god. The Crowns are a perfect mix of rockabilly, punk, and straight-up old school rock `n’ roll, and I really, really dig ’em.
It just didn’t stop. The kamikaze ska ninja stylings of Thumper on the second stage gave way to those old favorites and Boston ska greats, Bim Skala Bim. Bim put on an awesome set, as usual, pulling songs from all over their over six-album repertoire. The highlight of the set was when John Cameron played the organ with one hand, and sax with the other. Fourteen years and counting and they keep the crowd skankin’ strong as ever. Skinnerbox, from NYC, tight ‘n’ great as always, was next on the second stage and then it was time for the Toasters. The Toasters have been around since the early 1980s, home base NYC, and they’ll probably be around forever and never miss a beat. They started off the set with “Two Tone Army” and there were already a load of kids onstage, amazed smiles beaming as they danced with their heroes. Jack Ruby got the crowd’s arms up, waving in unison, thousands of people singing along to the tunes they grew up with. It was a Two Tone Army all right, and the Toasters played Moses for a little while, as Jack parted the sea of people in half and ran through the middle, the crowd closing back in around him as he made his way to the stage.
Think we could take a break? Naah. The Pilfers were up next, rudies, and to say the least, it was a set everyone was raving about afterwards. The crowd had reached almost full mass and the air was buzzing about the Skatalites, who were set to take the stage at any moment. The Skatalites, reformed in 1993, is the band that EVERYONE in the ska, reggae, and rocksteady scenes are influenced by. Why? Because they friggin’ started it all. They were the first to mix American jazz and R&B with Jamaican island music, and that spawned not only three major musical revolutions, but so many offshoots and indelible influences that you’d have to spend your life counting them all. I spent the first few songs of the set staring up at the stage, dancing in rhythm with the mass of mesmerized people, and I knew it was time. I grabbed my friends and our equipment, and we headed up the hill to the highest point. Just then, Doreen Shaffer came out, and I heard her honeyed voice live for the first time. I turned around and looked down on the crowd from the top of the hill, the sun starting to set in the distance… It was better than I had imagined. Over three thousand people dancing in harmony and unison to the sounds of this great music. I found ska heaven in the hills of Massachusetts and it was a sweet thing indeed.